With Oki’s Movie, Hong Sang-soo once again corroborates auteurist theory at the same time that he reveals the potential shortcomings of its practice. To an even greater extent than Like You Know It All, Hong’s latest is a lithe serio-comic investigation into his own personal hang-ups, and as with that prior effort, it features so many elements that have calcified into the director’s trademarks (solipsistic student and/or director protagonists, boozy escapades, clumsy romantic entanglements, divergent POVs, and segmented narratives) that it feels trifling at best. As is his custom, Hong here divides his story while focusing on an autobiographical proxy, twentysomething filmmaker Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun), who makes baffling shorts that few understand, has a habit of getting drunk whenever possible, and is simultaneously enthralled and frustrated by women. He’s also, as in Woman on the Beach and Night and Day, involved in a love triangle of sorts, as his consuming passion for Oki (Jeong Yu-mi) is complicated by the fact—unknown to him—that she also has feelings for their film school professor Song (Moon Sung-keun).
Split into four parts, one of which is, for Hong, uncommonly told from a female perspective, Oki’s Movie opens superbly, its maiden episode marked by two amusingly uncomfortable sequences centered on Jingu’s failings: a café get-together in which Jingu gets wasted on Johnny Walker and then proceeds to impolitely inform the respected Song that there’s a nasty rumor about him being spread around campus, and a subsequent post-screening Q&A in which Jingu is taken to task by an audience member for having destroyed her friend’s engagement. In both instances, Hong’s touch is so light and droll that the resultant comedic buzz is enough to distract attention away from the unavoidable realization that the director has guided us through this milieu, with only vaguely different versions of these characters, many times before. And, more pressing still, that he’s done so in service of similar thematic inquiries into confused and tormented masculinity and the bewildering nature of love and lust. Given how breezy and inconsequential most of the action is, epitomized by a third-chapter classroom scene in which Song responds to Oki and Jingu’s Big Questions with pretentiously vague fortune cookie answers, it frequently feels like Hong is merely fiddling, to barely progressive ends, with his favored tone, scenarios, and gestures—signature camera zooms included.
Courtesy of some sly dialogue suggestions, it’s never quite clear if the story’s four parts feature the same characters at different stages of their lives, or slight variations on them. Whatever the case, Hong’s duplications come across as creaky, customary devices, no more novel or energized than Woody Allen’s persistent habit of casting different actors as his on-screen surrogate. That said, in its final section (titled “Oki’s Movie”), Oki’s Movie finally locates a reasonably intriguing vehicle for its conceits, depicting a short film made by Oki (who also narrates) about two separate walks along the same Mt. Acha path, two years apart, with Song and Jungi, respectively. Cataloguing the various differences between the two trips, Oki’s bifurcated side-by-side comparison subtly evokes the way in which each new attempt at love boasts echoes of those that came before it, and how each new relationship is erected on the memories of a former one. The fact that “Oki’s Movie” also posits its characters as merely actors playing unseen real-life figures adds a further layer of meta-complexity to the saga. Ultimately, though, such familiar self-awareness doesn’t allow the film to speak more profoundly to its underlying fixations as much as it just validates the increasingly unavoidable, dispiriting impression that Hong’s cinema has become akin to a skipping record.